Three Pianos At American Repertory Theatre

A Delicious Toast to Franz Schubert and His Music

By: - Dec 08, 2011

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Three Pianos
By Rick Burkhardt, Alec Duffy and Dave Malloy
With music from Franz Schubert's Winterreise, Op. 89, D911 (1828)
Directed by Rachel Chavkin
December 7 through January 8, 2012

American Repertory Theatre
Loeb Drama Center
Harvard University
64 Brattle Street, Cambridge

White or red? Three Pianos begins by sharing a convivial glass of wine with each adult member of the audience. It is a party of classical music by Franz Schubert, clever and often quite funny interaction among friends and not so friendly acquaintances, brilliant, ocassionally outstanding musicianship and three upright pianos. This is a show like no other.

The focus of the production is upon Franz Schubert who basically toiled in obscurity during his often near destitute lifetime. The cleverness of this show can not be overstated.

The three characters/musicians, Rick Burkhardt, Alec Duffy and Dave Malloy, are all excellent individually and in ensemble. They play contemporary individuals who happen to have their real names as well as the character of Schubert and various friends of his. Their repartee, quips and barbs go back and forth across two centuries.

Franz Peter Schubert (1797–1828) was an Austrian composer who died at the age of 31. Luckily, Schubert was prolific. He wrote some 600 Lieder, nine symphonies, liturgical music, operas, and a great deal of chamber and solo piano music.

Appreciation of Schubert's music during his lifetime was limited, but interest in his work increased dramatically in the decades following his early demise. Several other prominent 19th Century composers championed his work including Franz List, Robert Schumann, Felix Mendelssohn and Johannes Brahms.

Today, Schubert, now considered one of the first and perhaps greatest Romantics musicians, is one of the most frequently performed classical composers. As well he should be.

This show takes the essence of Schubert's music and translates it, no actually channels it into a 21st Century exposition that feels at times like a late night, somewhat hungover depressed party. But the depression is innoculated with wit. This is a show underscored by a winter's chilling poignancy but uplifted by warm humor.

Starting with Rick Burkhardt, each of the performers demonstrates a deft comedic rhythm with a concert master's impeccable musical knowledge. In his various characters, Dave Malloy expresses a depressed often profane everyman as musical genius who can really sing. Alec Duffy is at once a pretentious graduate student teaching unappreciative undergraduates and then as a musician/singer of great depth and skill.

Did I say that each performer was brilliant? They were, however, at times the many Austrian names and German lyrics seem to get mixed up with strong and sometimes loud cacophonous piano sounds thanks to Franz Schubert. The pianos often overwhelmed the singing. Maybe the singing and some of the German was not very good? But that added to the party atmosphere.

A fascinating part of the performances and the show itself was the utter virtuosity of the performances, both musical and verbal. Built around Schubert's Winterreise song cycle, much of the narration was a bit dreamlike. The protagonist in the dream was the unnamed Wanderer.

And dreams are subject to various interpretations. The action of the characters in this program suggest, direct and even analize the sequences suggested by the many songs of Schubert's Winterreise. The analysis is so layered that we are not clear what is fact and what is fantasy.

It matters not. The narrative swinging back and forth between Schubert's early 19th Century salon and today's contemporary friends late night party sets a vague but quite amusing course. Yes, hard to follow, but totally entertaining.

This Wanderer character is constantly threading through the often disjointed storyline. He is spoken about as the songs were sung and then vaguely explained as the personification of Schubert's personal angst. This was an angst portrayed by Dave Malloy's 21st Century character named Dave and Rick, Burkhart's version of Franz Schubert, and contemporay character named Rick. Alec is many characters too, and of course a contemporary character named Alec.

Hard to follow? At times, the various details slip away. Not a problem. Somehow the exquisite music and the charm of the performances made sense of it all.

Three Pianos is an absorbing performance event, entertaining on many levels even if not quite totally understandable. Then again magic is not really understood, just appreciated. We smile in appreciation of a great trick. We smile from the inside and out, at and with, Three Pianos. It is magical.

Would you like another glass of wine? Red or white? Dankeschön.

Just listen to the music. Feel it. Dream it.